Livebox Microscopes of the Late 18th - Early 19th Centuries


One of the most important developments that the Enlightenment era and the Age of Exploration brought to the discipline of science was its popularization. An increasingly literate population seeking knowledge and education in both the arts and the sciences drove the expansion of print culture and the dissemination of scientific learning. In Britain, this new popular side of science reflected in the establishment of such organizations as the Royal Institution (founded in 1799 and still in existence) whose stated purpose was: “diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.” As public interest in natural philosophy grew, hobbyists expressed keen interest in the world around them, with insects, microscopic fauna and flora, and fossils or mineral crystals receiving their fair share of attention. While wealthy amateurs could afford the costly compound microscopes of the time, simpler microscopes such some seen here were in use by the less professional or well-to-do amateurs. However, these rather modest microscopes had their fair share in satisfying the curiosity and spreading the notion of natural history amongst the public well into the 20th century.


Livebox Insectoscopes, ca. 1780 - 1820

These are early 19th century lignum vitae or brass and glass single lens live-box "insectoscope" microscopes. Illuminated by the glass live-box, insects, flowers or minerals could be placed for inspection under magnification. Focusing was performed by rotating the screw-in lens by its milled housing. The magnifications normally range between ca. x6 - x12.

Simpler microscopes such as this one, were in use by amateurs who could not afford costly microscopes and prepared slides. However, this rather modest microscope type went far in satisfying the curiosity and spreading the notion of natural history amongst the public.

Livebox insectoscopes such as the ones shown here appear in various forms and constructions. The two main forms represented by these examples are typical of the end of the 18th to the very beginning of the 19th century. However, in catalogues (such as that of Benjamin Pike's Son & Co), they appear till the beginning of the second half of the century.

Inv. YG-20-025

Inv. YG-21-034

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21-017 b.jpg

Inv. YG-21-017

The lignum vitae and glass insectoscope, seen above, is known in several versions, all preserving the same materials (lignum vitae and glass) and principal design. An example from the SML (A35408) is assigned to the 1st half of the 19th century. Giordano (2012: #33) dates it to the 18th century and refers to Denecke (1757: Pl. 47, 1-2) who presents similar designs. Weber-Unger and Mappes (2008: #22) date it to ca. 1850. I tend to attribute it, both stylistically and on the basis of the materials to the late 18th century. The provenance is probably from the German Lands or France.


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The photos above show two types of insect microscopes. The upper (YG-20-025) is a kind of bottomless glass bottle whose neck contains a lens enclosed in a brass frame, in which the fine-focusing can be performed by rotating the lens holder around the threaded tube. The example below (YG-20-005) contains a thick glass cylinder located between two brass caps, with a lens fixed at the top inside a brass frame that can be screwed into the same type of thread. The two microscopes present a magnification of approximately 8-6 times.

Here is another version of the livebox microscope, dating to the 1st half of the 19th c., combining a livebox with a simple slide viewer intended to house small-sized microscopical slides such as the ones that were made by the Bourgogne bros. in France. The magnification is estimated at ~x10.


The Seed Microscope, seen to the right, is a mid-19th century version of a livebox microscope, which is intended to inspect under magnification plant seeds for comparison. A circular base is divided into six compartments, and covered with a glass top. A pillar rises from the center, carrying a lens (magnification about 5x) in rotating mount. Different varieties of seeds are in the compartments, easily available for examination and comparison. 

Inv. YG-20-032

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Inv. YG-20-004